My short, grisly career as a TV superstar
How a novice celebrity got a potato stuck in his mouth and why CBC Halifax was not amused
It’s hard to remember the lowest point among all the low points in my lightning career as the TV superstar of Halifax, Nova Scotia, but I think it was the cold morning I found myself standing under a sign that said, EAST IS EAST,
WEST IS WEST, PEI POTATOES ARE THE BEST. That was at the Atlantic Winter Fair. I fondled a microphone in one hand, and a pamphlet called Potatoes With Love in the other, and I flopped around in this limp conversation with two young PEI potato promoters about the trillions of tons of spuds that leave the island each year and, well, you’d be surprised, you really would, by all the marvelous things you can do with them.
Dozens of rotten little kids — at winter fairs, all children are rotten little kids and, there, they deserve only the contempt of W. C. Fields — these kids kept heckling and bumping me, and the producer wrung his hands, the sound man fiddled and scowled, the cameraman smirked in the superior way of cameramen, and the lighting man beamed the evil tools of his trade so they’d not only blind me but also make the sweat pop from my face. And there I was, talking about “potato power,” yes, potato power, and I was shaking all over, and my voice squeaked and, somewhere behind the great claustrophobic panic that I had learned must always afflict me when I faced a TV camera, I was thinking, “My God, is this what I’ve come to? Is this what I’ve done to a once-great career in Canadian journalism?”
A simple taxpayer’s thought also crossed my mind: if you added up the salaries of the CBC personnel (including me) who were there that morning to sell potatoes, and if you tossed in a figure to account for the use of the expensive electronic equipment we’d brought with us, you might very well have come up
with enough money to fund some significant research on potato blight. Which, if you don’t happen to know, may cause damage to unborn babies. (I do happen to know; potato blight was the subject of another of my least memorable television interviews for CBC Halifax.)
In any event, my shakiness combined with my lack of potato commitment in such a depressing way that the interview turned out to be one of only two I have ever done that were so excruciatingly awful that the people I worked for decided they could not inflict the stuff even on the good farmers of PEI.
The other unusable interview — and, believe me, an interview has to be terrible beyond human imagining for CBC Halifax to refuse to air it — was a studio session with the Honorable Paul Martin. It occurred about a month before the last federal election and, for reasons that still escape me, the show I worked for
had it in its head that it would somehow be unethical to let politicians campaign on television. They were not to be too partisan. My assignment, if you can believe it, was to prevent Paul Martin from talking current politics during a federal election campaign. It would be easier to put seagulls on a fish-free diet.
I asked Mr. Martin to recall his masterly tactics as a grass-roots charmer, the supreme glad-hander and champion face-and-name-rememberer of Canadian politics a quarter-century ago. He looked baffled and, as Mr. Martin often does, a trifle put out; but, undisturbed by anything so dismissible as my questions, he plunged ahead to describe for Nova Scotia viewers the glories of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He gave the appearance of a talking statue. The egg stuck firmly to my cheeks for the entire 10 minutes and, later, I bribed one of the thousands of sluggish denizens of CBC Halifax to destroy the tape.
But there was no one I could blame. Deep down, in my heart of hearts, I knew there were those who could have made Mr. Martin sparkle and potato talk scintillate as it had never scintillated before. Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, David Frost, people like that would have known exactly how to ask, “Yes, but how do you really feel about mashed potatoes from PEI? What do they really mean to you, not just as a potato pusher but as a human being, as a precious young member of the human race in this, the most critical era in the history of mankind? Do you truly love potatoes? Are they terrific? Or are they an ineluctable part of your really terrible childhood?”
Jack Webster, Doug Collins, Pierre Berton, people like that would have known exactly how to say to Mr. Martin, “Come off it, Paul. Let’s cut the political doubletalk, eh? Let’s get the hell off the old statesmanship ploy. I know you. Now you give us the goods. Right? You give us the real poop, Paul, about how you made it to the Big Time in Canadian politics but never quite copped the Whole Ball of Wax.” They’d know, but not me. I could break the world polevaulting record before I could master the art of television interviewing.
The show’s name was Gazette. It had been Gazette since before most Nova Scotian college kids were born. It had opened when the station opened, back in the age of Louis St. Laurent, back in 1954. It was the longest-running suppertime talk show in the whole history of Canadian television and, to make matters worse for so blushing a newcomer as myself, two of the show’s original Personalities were still with it and, like fine wine, they were improving with each passing year. They were Don Tremaine, announcer and master of light conversation; and Rube Hornstein, intrepid interviewer and a weatherman whose television experience is unmatched anywhere in the country, even by Percy Saltzman. Rube and Don (and Gazette itself) were Nova Scotian institutions, like the schooner Bluenose and equalization payments, and one did not take lightly one’s on-camera adventures with the likes of them.
There was a lot of heritage to honor, too many boots to fill. Thousands of Gazette-watchers dearly remembered Max Ferguson, the great Rawhide himself; and Lloyd Maclnnes, a man of legendary on-camera suavity. I came in as Gazette's “host” and, in my case, the word was outrageous hyperbole. Moreover, the previous host had been a hostess, a gorgeous and frighteningly talented young Halifax housewife who had the double advantage of bearing the name Marilyn MacDonald (in Nova Scotia almost every second person you meet is a MacDonald, a
continued on page 62
TV SUPERSTAR from page 39
Macdonald or a McDonald) and of having been bom in Cape Breton Island.
“Where does Harry Bruce hail from?” a viewer demanded one night. “He has such a flat accent.” With deadly accuracy, the CBC switchboard replied, “As far as I know he’s from Toronto.” And thereby lost the show yet another viewer.
I was born and raised in Toronto, and spent all of my adult life working for newspapers and magazines in Upper Canada. Now, I had chosen to settle in Nova Scotia, and I had found it convenient to answer direct questions about my birthplace by saying, “Well, I’m from Toronto, yes, but my father was from down here.” This often thawed my interrogators. “Hummph,” they’d say, “well, that’s something in your favor.”
The trouble was, I couldn’t very well tell Gazette viewers five nights a week that although I was from hated Hog Town my father was from these very seagirt shores, and the daily audience phone report continued to betray a distressing concern for my origins. “What is the name of the new host on GazetteV Answer: Harry Bruce. “Well send him back to the rock he crawled out from.” The switchboard, which has a heart, listed that little discussion as an Inquiry rather than as a Bad Comment but it had little choice in most cases: “This program has turned into something terrible. That Bruce is not capable, and did not need to be imported . . . Who is that shaggy-haired man on Gazette now doing an interview? He looks like something that came out of Toronto.”
After a while the nice girls in the Gazette office began to hide the phone reports. They could no longer stand to see my cheery face crumple as I looked the reports over each morning. You try to be reasonable. You tell yourself that, after all, the callers are just a handful of mean-mouthed screwballs who deserve nothing so much as a good burning at the stake but, in the end, they do get to those of us who are made of finer clay. I mean, how would you feel, if a stranger, someone you had never met, much less tried to harm, were to describe you in the following terms?
“That little old hairy lady sitting between Rube and Don needs to go to the barber and try to get himself looking like a man . . . That new host that you have is slovenly, sloppy and slouching, not fit to be on the program . . .Tell Harry Bruce to stick to writing and leave broadcasting to the broadcasters . . . Now that Don is back, why have we got that Bruce still on? We are sick of him spoiling the program and [unkindest cut of all] he cannot even use the Queen’s English correctly. I am going to write a letter to have him removed. I will be taking up a petition ...”
These direct assaults were damaging
enough to the delicate flower of my TV confidence, but the comparisons with what had gone before were even worse. When I joined the show Marilyn MacDonald was with child, and would not be back. Don Tremaine and Rube Hornstein were on temporary leave. Gazette, the beloved suppertime soporific of the entire bingo crowd of Nova Scotia, just did not seem to be there anymore. “What are you doingT’ viewers ^wanted to know. “Where’s the old gang? The old faces are the best faces. Bring back Marilyn. What have you done with Rube? When’s Don coming back? Next week, you say? Well, thank God for that!”
Still, they could not oust me. With incredible canniness, I had manoeuvred myself.into a contract to stammer in my hairy fashion before tens of thousands of Maritimers five nights a week for a whole year, including Christmas Day, and all other holidays except January 1. (On New Year’s Day, the Rose Bowl Game out of Pasadena preempts Gazette, and how’s that for starting off the year with Canadian content?) But how
had I landed this job? You may well ask.
I had been living in Nova Scotia for a year-and-a-half and, throughout the summer, I’d led the precarious life of a free-lance writer. Late in August, I heard that Gazette had fallen upon evil days, that it was trying to rescue itself from its desperate lethargy with a new producer, a new look, and a new host (who might be able to bag a cool $350 a week from the CBC).
The evil days, it turned out, were the result of backroom bushwhacking, jurisdictional skirmishes and traditions of flashing knives, poison-pen memos and kickings upstairs that were more complicated than the history of Yugoslavia. I’d have to be Franz Kafka even to begin to reveal accurately, to anyone who has never worked at CBC Halifax, the administrative atmosphere of the place. My natural optimism had led me to assume these troubles were transitory; in truth, they were a part of the very soil of CBC Halifax. The troubles will continue. Their future is as certain as the return of the mayfyowers to the forests of Nova Scotia, or worms in codfish.
Anyway, along with what I later learned were something like 40 other would-be TV superstars, I auditioned
for the job. The others, I think, must mostly have been bored housewives, first-year media students, and youngsters who’d just learned that OFY had turned them down and they’d have to wait a while before getting their LIP grants. For the audition, I chose to interview Jack Brayley, head of Canadian Press for the Atlantic region, and that was the canny part. Jack is a fine, frank, garrulous gentleman who looks as comfortable before a television camera as he does sitting beside a roaring fireplace at his retreat near the Wentworth Valley. We get along well, and he won me the job simply by being Jack Brayley to my Harry Bruce.
The Brayley interview proved that, as one CBC executive put it, “Bruce is the man for Gazette. He’s not too ugly, he’s not too handsome. He’s not too stupid, he’s not too smart. Bruce is the sort of fellow you’d like to drink a couple of beers with out back when you should be mowing your grass.” (Actually, he was partly right. I am as good as anyone in the country at drinking beer when I should be mowing the grass.)
Jack proved something else, though I did not know it at the time. He proved that the quality of the interview had virtually nothing to do with the quality of the interviewer. Everything depended on the guest. If he or she were good I scarcely needed to be there and, indeed, there were respects in which I was not. The moment a guest began to roll along, gesticulating and shouting and caring, the camera would cut me out entirely. Any bright high-school sophomore might have done as well as I did with Farley Mowat, Pierre Berton, Dinah Christie, Tom Kneebone, Réal Caouette, René Lévesque, Barbara Frum, three bright and beautiful young strippers from a joint called Cousin Brucie’s, Darren McGavin (the Hollywood actor and film maker), and Jean Vanier (the saintly son of our late Governor General).
Show business people could seldom resist turning themselves on for the camera, if not for me; and I no longer bitch at the endless stream of actors, comedians, singers and full-time experts in idle chitchat who pass through the big U.S. talk shows. I know why they’re there.
I did not do so well with Halifax’s only real live North Vietnamese; or with a man who bribed his employees to quit smoking; or with the world’s foremost woman authority on the personality of man-eating sharks; or with a British lady who’d shaken Jomo Kenyatta’s own right hand; or with a cigar-smoking chick from California who’d made a film about an art school for feminists; or with the leader of the Linguistic Orchestra and Prose Quintet (never mind. I’m still not sure what they are myself).
Nor was I triumphant with people
who had just returned from horrors in Munich, jails in South Africa, injustice in Uganda, agony in Pakistan, political crises in West Germany, factories in Red China, bad food in Moscow, ecological surveys of Baffin Island, traffic jams in Ottawa, fuming public protests in Ship Harbor, and cultural indignities along the Digby shore.
I rapped feebly with experts on dental care, day care, care of the aged, care of retarded children, and the wintertime care of your summertime camper trailer; with lifeguards, pacifists, biologists, nutritionists, ecologists, religious cranks, lumber workers, test pilots, Chinese cooks, cabinet ministers, labor leaders, cops, soldiers, sailors, airmen, doctors, do-gooders, evildoers, stuffed shirts and, forever, with politicians.
I talked, too, with experts on the oil industry, experts on the rights of the unborn, experts on the rights of those who wished to abort the unborn, experts on hate literature and obscene phone calls, a lady expert on how to be a gourmet and a nationalist at the same time, an Australian expert on how to apply behavioral psychology to the coaching of team sports, an expert on why making pots out of clay is lots of fun for everyone, and an expert on what to do when you find maimed people on the highway. Everyone was always an expert on something. Except me.
The night I interviewed Pierre Berton he told me, off-camera, that he too had had a terrible time when he started out in television but that I should not worry because one improves, not gradually, but in strange jumps or mutations. It was one of the kindest things I have ever known him to say. What Pierre did not know, however, was that one could also deteriorate in mutations so that, one day, say at the PEI potato booth, one might realize quite suddenly that his eightyfifth interview was even more disastrous than his third had been.
In my fifth month, the producer of Gazette — he’s left the show too now, perhaps in permanent disgrace for having hired me — invited me into his office, closed the door, and confided that he could not say he was entirely pleased with my “development as a television personality.’’ Go on, I said. Really? Gosh, that sounds like a vote of no confidence to me. I guess I’d better exercise the 30-day escape clause in our contract, hadn’t I?
There’s a new show in Gazette’s time slot now. It’s called Here Today, but I am in no position to make mean jokes about its being gone tomorrow. After all, until I came along, Gazette had survived half the length of my life.
Farewell, CBC Gazette. You were like military service. I’m glad I endured my time with you, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.